The virtual studio

23rd September 2005 at 01:00

The music business is only a touch away in Lynn Serafinn's Surrey classroom, as Sebastian Lander reports

When BTEC students Chris and Ese arrive to give their music technology in performance presentations, teacher Lynn Serafinn is rushing to upload their materials on to the state-of-the-art interactive SMART Board.

Lynn runs the BTEC national diploma in music technology course at Carshalton College, Surrey. The name may give away its technology focus but Lynn also uses technology to teach the course to pupils with different needs, where traditional methods might leave some trailing behind.

Little wonder that Lynn was one of the teachers representing the UK at the Microsoft European Innovative Teachers Awards in Stockholm earlier this year. "My delivery is virtual and very technology-based," she says, "which can be used to overcome a lot of obstacles."

Teachers have compulsory core units to teach, such as the music industry, listening skills and studio production. They can then choose a further 12 specialist units from 18 topics as diverse as events management, sound for the moving image and the freelance world.

Lynn is passionate about technology and its uses in education. "People see technology in two ways," she says. "One is that it makes life easier. The other is that technology is a creative medium, a dynamic tool that can be used to enhance, expand and build upon teaching practice that is already good and turn it into something that is truly wonderful."

Lynn's classroom has a recording studio, purpose-built music computers for recording, PCs and a film studio. At the front is a PC from which Lynn operates the interactive SMART Board or by simply touching the board with her finger.

This impressive set-up wasn't always in evidence. Lynn explains: "When I came to the college, the system was not networked and I brought Blackboard (a virtual learning environment) into the classroom which lots of teachers think is used to just share documents."

This set-up has allowed Lynn to teach pupils aged from 16 to 46. The students' knowledge of English, attention spans and computer skills vary widely and some of them have learning difficulties. Faced with these challenges, Lynn believes "technology has the potential to level the playing field for learners".

Levelling the playing field has involved a great deal of work and lack of sleep. She has designed online learning aids, accessible to all in one virtual area. Blackboard has been loaded with multimedia content such as online assignments, still and moving images, interactive games and quizzes, audio, hypertext learning materials and presentations. This allows the students to learn independently.

When teaching, Lynn keeps touching the SMART Board so the students can see what she is doing. Once the class is shown the task, they can do it at their computer by logging on to the network and get instant feedback on the results. Lynn says: "They can complete it 10 times and get it wrong 10 times without pressure as they are all working at their own pace."

One example is the "introduction to acoustics" unit where students can do practice exercises, quizzes and listen to something over and over again on headphones so as not to distract each other. The network can also be accessed at home.

The students spend time in the studio, take part in group discussions and evaluate each other's work. The presentations the class has been asked to prepare near the end of the two-year course do exactly that. Chris Reed, 23, is delivering his "music technology in performance" on electronic musician Richard D James, better known as Aphex Twin. Once Chris has delivered the material and a clip of music at ear-bleeding level, the students log on to Blackboard and evaluate his efforts which will give him his final mark. Chris is a success of this approach as he has been signed to Aphex Twin's record label, Reflex Records, with his own electronic music, which he calls "bearable noise".

Lynn has also set up discussion forums . She says: "Online communication frequently brings out the shy students who may feel intimidated in the classroom. It also allows learners who may be speakers of other languages to formulate their answers without feeling pressured."

This use of ICT can also help those with special needs. Lynn says: "I have seen how carefully designed e-content can make learning easier for students who struggle with dyslexia, ADHD and other attention difficulties. All too many of them leave school frustrated and feeling branded with negative accolades. The lucky ones end up in FE years later, but some never return to education."

Lynn is keen to stress that technology is not a panacea and says:

"Technology is not a quick-fix to lack of teacher contact time with students. Nothing about it is quick; it takes time to develop good content.

But most of all, it is important to remember that technology in education is only as good as the person who designs it."

Lynn also makes it clear that technology does not mean depersonalisation.

She says: "It should never be viewed as a replacement for good teaching.

Used creatively, at its best it can result in a highly interactive and extremely personal experience for the learner."


* Technology in music will not destroy creativity and nullify the need for talent. Lynn Seraffin says: "You can get so much more creativity from music with new sounds and new mixes. It's like an unlimited crayon box."

* Try to see technology as a new, exciting art form in education.

* Research has shown that the brain processes information more effectively when multiple sensory pathways are engaged. Rich multimedia content can improve learning and appeal to a wide range of learning styles.

* Technology can be used to develop self-directed learning that permits the learner to take ownership of learning.

* Technology is a means of self-expression. Discussion forums enable learners to engage in collaborative learning and share ideas in a non-pressured atmosphere.

* Technology does not mean depersonalisation.

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